Does Jose Padilha's Robocop do the franchise right, or just well enough? Read on to find out!
The future imagined by Director Paul Verhoeven during the 1980's and 90's is almost as frighteningly real compared to the one we really got. Science Fiction has become today's fact, but it's more intrusive than we'd like, living up to the promise of a far more dangerous than we had hoped; but it was these ideas and almost vicious bloodsport presented in 1987's Robocop which have defined a generation of Sci-Fi/action films. That random mega-violence - which has become such a part of these genres - generated a healthy bit of shock among those who first witnessed it, and might have overtaken the entire film had it not been for the career-defining performance of its titular lead, played by Peter Weller. Fast-forward 27 years, and Director Jose Padilha has resurrected the franchise with a good but not great remake, crafting a more character-driven affair that sadly misses in a couple of key areas.
Set in a futuristic but violent Detroit, detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically wounded while hunting a local gun runner, leaving Murphy's wife (Abbie Cornish) to ponder a future without him. But Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) and his financier OmniCorp - led by the dubious Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) - have a plan: turn what's left of Murphy into a mechanized cop loaded with all the extras. Although projects like these have been banned in the past, Sellars and Norton hope a successful test will convince an obstinate Congress to change their minds. A voice in the debate is talk show host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) who sets off to convince Americans one by one that the law must be lifted. As Murphy adjusts to his new life, he learns that living as a cyborg comes with risks he hadn't imagined, including the desire of an OmniCorp mercenary (Jackie Earle Haley), who wants to see him fail. As he gets closer to his killers, Murphy must decide if he can do what's right while protecting his family, who just want a normal life with him again.
It's clear from things that Padilha and Writer Joshua Zetumer have a healthy respect for the franchise, throwing in lines from the original, and creating a general sense that this universe is more Ender's Game than Starship Troopers. But there's also a feeling that some elements needed more attention. We loved the idea of corporate America getting their hands dirty in future tech, and the idea of smarter weapons over bigger ones was well played, but the individual performances of some of the actors felt stiff and one-dimensional. Both Haley and Keaton come off a stock antagonists, there to utter gruff lines about what people want or what machines should be without knowing why they feel that way. Each time they come into contact with Murphy, it's almost anti-climatic because we already know the outcome; the original film addresses this in fine form, giving Murphy three vanilla directives and a hidden one which is cunningly used at the right time. Here, that prop is never employed and things are worse for it.
But it's the casting of Kinnaman that will probably divide audiences the most - he's pretty much unfeeling as both a human and as Robocop, playing the former with such a dull edge that his pulse never rises above barely awake. Even when he dons the costume, there's little there except for a couple of emotional exchanges that don't feel real at all. Believe me, you'll know the scene I mean when you see it. Cornish pulls off a couple of emotional tirades, but again there's no support system for her once Murphy goes down, and any backstory to explain her mental toughness is suppressed for other dramatic elements. The real bright spot is Oldman, who plays the sympathetic and idealistic doctor with an ease that we've come to expect. He's the perfect moral center for Robocop, acting as both healer and surrogate father to Murphy. On the other end of the spectrum - and just as effective - is Jackson, whose hilariously bias news commentaries remind us directly of the Verhoeven version, although no such role existed in that one. But it's clear that Zetumer and Padilha don't treat the other actors with the same respect, and consistently waste several incredible screen talents along the way.
On a personal note - not like this review isn't filled with them already - I wanted an R Robocop, not a PG-13 one that tries to stay nice but wants so desperately to be bad. I really wanted a more brazen Robocop that I loved so much in youth. Such an ultraviolent re-imagining might have actually improved things, making me hope that we'll get a director's cut once it's released onto Blu-ray.
In the end, Robocop is entertaining, but fans of the original will miss the wit and sheer brazenness of the Verhoeven classic. Padilha and his team waste their acting assets, but pull off a film that should pack theaters if only for a brief period. Neither terrible nor groundbreaking, Robocop is an acceptable choice this weekend if only because no other similar competition short of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit exists. We'd recommend staying away from IMAX, RPX, and XD, as there's not enough big set pieces to warrant the inflated ticket prices. You'll like it on a smaller screen, but it's lack of amoral wit will leave you wanting more. Robocop is rated a disappointing PG-13 for too many reasons and has a runtime of 108 minutes.
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